Holly Case and the “Age of Questions”

Asking questions is more than a useful pedagogical tool. It used to chart the waves of history in big, seemingly important ways:

The 19th-century drive to settle or solve questions reveals something essential about them: They were construed as problems. The “question” had become an instrument of thought with special potency, structuring ideas about society and politics, and influencing the range of actions considered possible and desirable. This potency is evident in another creation of 19th-century commentators: the “definitive” or “final solution.” …


Today we “address issues” rather than “solve questions.” Perhaps this is why Putin’s reference to the “Ukrainian question” did not arouse much interest: We no longer live in an age of questions. Still, when The New York Times reports on the “French question” as though that country’s decline in prestige makes it the Ottoman Empire of our time, and a Latvian state official speaks of the necessity of facing the “Russian question,” and the Scottish referendum on independence from Britain has reignited both the “English question” and the “Catalonian question,” could it be that we are now on the cusp of a new age of questions? If so, we might do well to consider the first one.

via Interrogative Mode – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This “age of questions” that Holly Case writes about can be seen to shape current transformations “in the form of European Union enlargement, the Arab Spring, and Ukraine’s Maidan.” And in the latter case–the historical underpinnings have been mined by Putin even thought they work against his interests in Ukraine:

In 1915 a French diplomat asked the conservative Russian statesman Ivan Goremykin about the Ukrainian question. “There is no Ukrainian question!” Goremykin snapped. “From the national point of view, the Ukrainians are as Russian as the purest Muscovites. And from the economic point of view, the Ukraine is necessarily tied to Russia.” Russian liberals and leftist revolutionaries—who tended to believe there was such a thing as Ukrainians—were less dismissive. During the early stages of the Russian Revolution, in 1917—just months before Goremykin was killed by a street mob—the liberal novelist and poet Dmitry Merezhkovsky lamented, “We would like very much to say that there is no such thing as the Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, Armenian, Georgian question, that there is only one question—the Russian. Yes, we would like to, but we cannot; the Russian people have yet to earn the right to say that, and therein lies their tragedy.” To Merezhkovsky, national questions were remnants of the old czarist regime, lingering problems that the revolution would address.


Fast-forward nearly a century: It is no longer Russian imperialists but Ukrainian nationalists and patriots who insist that “there is no Ukrainian question, just a free, great Ukrainian nation.” It is safe to say that a question enjoys special longevity when those who deny its existence are as passionate and determined as those who profess its primacy. The struggle is therefore not between groups with opposing views on an issue so much as between groups that cannot agree on the terms of debate, or for which those terms are the debate.


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